Consolidation Advocates Demand Special District Audits

By Christopher Twarowski
Long Island Press
April 2, 2010

Holding signs and demanding action, a consortium of civic organizations and residents from throughout Nassau County gathered Thursday in front of a county government building in Mineola to protest a recent announcement from county Comptroller George Maragos regarding his stance on special districts, aka, the more than 200 taxing units—such as water, fire and sanitation, for example—layered within Nassau’s network of county, town and village municipalities.

Residents and civic groups from throughout Nassau staged a protest Thursday, April 1 in front of Republican county Comptroller George Maragos’ office in Mineola to demand he continue auditing special districts.

The more than a dozen protesters, which included members of the Residents for Efficient Special Districts (RESDI), Long Island Progressive Coalition (LIPC), Long Islanders for Education Reform (LIFER), among other groups, as well as residents, demanded Maragos conduct audits of these special taxing districts “and protect taxpayers.”

They raised banners and posters declaring, “April Fools Taxpayers: Maragos Supports Special Districts” and “Stop Special Treatment for Special Districts,” among other slogans, while shouting their message to media outlets and passers by.

“We are here today to tell the comptroller that this new policy is unacceptable,” said Laura Mallay, executive director of RESD. “We the people will not stand by and allow our elected officials to pass the buck. It is the responsibility of our comptroller to act as the fiscal watchdog over not just county government, but special districts as well. Comptroller Maragos must understand that the taxpayers of Nassau County will not allow him to cater to these special interest groups.”

“The happiness has been taken out of Long Island by municipal government that is out of control,” declared Fred Gorman, a local civic leader and founder of LIFER, a school tax protest group. “It’s gotta stop.”

“It’s an outrage,” added Pat Nicolosi, president of the Elmont East End Civic Association. “We cannot afford the tax burden. Our children are leaving, our seniors can’t afford it, we can’t afford it anymore. This is insane—talk about duplication of services!”

The rally was sparked by Maragos’ March 23 announcement that: “The Comptroller’s Office will not be advocating broad consolidation or dissolution of special districts. I have not seen any credible formal analysis that would support the wholesale consolidation of special districts and villages in Nassau County.” Maragos had said his office would not be auditing special districts until possibly next year.

Critics stressed that Maragos’ stance contrasts sharply with that of his predecessor, Democrat Howard Weitzman, who audited numerous special districts aggressively and discovered “widespread abuse, patronage, mismanagement and financial waste.” One such case in point, they said: Sanitation District No. 7 in the Town of Hempstead.

Weitzman’s “Limited Review of Compensation and Fringe Benefits” for the district, released Oct. 29, 2009, found it was devoid of written policies and procedures covering its election process, had no conflict of interest policy governing employees related to one another, and a “virtually unlimited” leave buyback program for employees, among other taxpayer-costly discoveries.

LIPC Director Lisa Tyson characterized Maragos’ statements and no-special districts-audit policy as a waste of taxpayer funds in itself—and a shirking of his job responsibilities.

“We have to make sure the residents of Nassau County understand that [Maragos] is saying he is not going to do his job, and that’s protecting taxpayers and auditing special districts,” she told the Press. “It’s outrageous for this county comptroller to say, ‘No, I’m not going to do this,’ and, ‘No, I don’t believe there’s a problem,’ which, really, throws away thousands and thousands of dollars the county has spent on doing these audits. They had many staff people auditing for eight years, and so, basically he’s throwing all of that into the garbage—and that’s irresponsible.”

Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos

Maragos defended his position in an interview at his office immediately following the protest, saying that protesters misinterpreted his words and policy.

“I think that’s just a misunderstanding,” he said of the protest.

The comptroller explained that in light of the state Legislature’s June passage of legislation empowering residents to consolidate or dissolve special districts, the decision to do so should be left up to the taxpayers. Proposed by New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Gov. David Paterson made it law. Known as the New York Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act, it became effective March 21.

“Certainly when I took office and also during the campaign, I indicated that my policy would be that I would leave it up to the local taxpayer, to the local residents, to decide which districts were not effectively delivering services and were not delivering value, and leave it up to the residents whether to decide whether consolidation or dissolution of the district made sense for them,” he said. “What I indicated [was that] the comptroller’s office would not be leading the charge for countywide consolidation.”

Instead of special districts audits, Maragos said his office’s focus this year would be to “to look internally” at various agencies to “streamline” their efficiency—with balancing the budget its top priority. Next year, he added, “we may go back and start looking at some of the special districts again.”

If requested, his office would provide whatever information it could to assist local groups to “put their case forward for consolidation,” he said.

As for Weitzman’s prior work on special districts, Maragos stated: “My analysis of the prior comptroller’s studies that were performed were not supportive of a broad, countywide consolidation effort. Some districts, I pointed out, were being run very, very economically and very efficiently. Others were not. So it wasn’t appropriate for the prior comptroller, I felt, to advocate a broad consolidation across the total county.”

But that’s not what protesters are even asking of Maragos, they charge.

“We are not asking for this office to work toward consolidation, what we’re asking this office to do is to continue auditing and to release the information of these audits, so that we as the citizens and the residents can take our action now to consolidate the ones that are dangerous and then the ones that are doing their job correctly,” said Tyson. “But if they don’t do their job, we can’t do their job. So he’s basically saying to citizens, ‘I’m not going to assist you by giving you the ammunition to see where the problems are.’”

“The audits are absolutely integral to the whole process,” added Andrew Calderaro, director of the Nassau County Government Efficiency Project project at LIPC. “And it’s important to know, unequivocally, that those audits showed the waste, favoritism, poor practice and lack of internal control that is conducted in these special districts.”

“We need this office to audit,” continued Tyson. “The special district abuse in Nassau County is the worst in the whole state. And for our one county comptroller who is in charge of this area to say he’s not going to do it is just outrageous, and we have to stop that, so we’re going to do whatever we can to make him get back on to his auditing.”
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Nassau comptroller's special district policy knocked

By William Murphy

About 20 civic activists gathered outside the Mineola office of Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos Thursday to protest his decision to reduce the auditing of special taxing districts, which have been criticized by his predecessor for waste and abuse.

“We are here today to tell our comptroller that this policy is unacceptable. We the people cannot stand by and allow our elected officials to look the other way or pass the buck,” Laura Mallay of Residents for Efficient Special Districts said.

Maragos had said he would not conduct any audits of special districts this year, and would limit those audits next year to districts where problems had been uncovered in an audit by his predecessor, Howard Weitzman, a Democrat. He said he had “not seen any credible formal analysis that would support the wholesale consolidation of special districts.”

Maragos, a Republican, said in an interview after the demonstration that while he did not see the need for widespread action, he did not oppose consolidation of districts that had been shown to operate wastefully.

He said some of those districts had been identified in Weitzman’s audits, but he refused to say which ones should be dissolved or consolidated. “That is up to residents of the district,” he said.

A new state law creates a uniform way for localities and voters to consolidate or dissolve special districts, and Maragos said he made public his position two days later to clarify the role he would take.

At the demonstration, Lisa Tyson of the Long Island Progressive Coalition said Maragos was abdicating his duties. “We need this comptroller to do his job, which is to audit special districts,” she said. Fred Gorman of Long Islanders for Educational Reform said political leaders should push for consolidation of district functions to save money.

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“We have over 700 districts sucking the life blood out of us and it’s got to stop,” Gorman said.

Pat Nicolosi of the Elmont East End Civic Association said private firms are consolidating during this economic downturn, and government should also.
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Civic Groups Demand Audits of Special Districts

By Ryan Bonner

Residents gathered outside the office of County Comptroller George Maragos this afternoon to push for continued oversight of local tax districts.
A host of civic groups protested outside the office of Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos this afternoon demanding that he keep up audits of special tax districts conducted in recent years.

Maragos, elected in November, released a statement last week announcing that his office “would not be advocating broad consolidation or dissolution of special districts.”

Maragos has said he will not conduct any new audits of special districts this year.

“Telling them that you won’t audit them for a year is like telling the mice that the cat is leaving for the year,” Merrick resident Derek Donnelly said of Maragos’ decision to instead focus on digging the county out of a $250 million deficit.

Lisa Tyson, director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, speaking before the small crowd gathered in Mineola said of Maragos: “He’s basically saying ‘I’m not going to do my job.’ We the taxpayers need help now, we can’t wait any longer.”

Members of Residents for Efficient Special Districts and Long Islanders for Educational Reform were also on hand this afternoon.

Maragos’ predecessor, Howard Weitzman, conducted several audits of special districts, which provide services such as water, sanitation and fire protection. Maragos acknowledged that many of those audits exposed corruption and mismanagement, but he said it was “not appropriate for the previous comptroller to advocate broad consolidation across the county.”

“I’ve indicated that my policy would be to leave it up to local taxpayers to decide which districts are not delivering services or delivering value,” Maragos said. “If there is a request to provide [copies of previous] reports, we will do so, but the comptroller’s office is not leading the charge.”

State legislation that went into effect on March 21 allows the consolidation or dissolution of special districts through either a resolution of the special districts’ governing body, a vote of the Nassau County Legislature or a petition of voters in the district, signed by 10 percent, or 5,000 registered voters, whichever is less.

Residents would then need to approve the proposed changes with a majority vote in either a general or special election.

Bellmore resident Stu Weinstein said he believed consolidation of special districts would save taxpayers’ money.

“You shouldn’t consolidate just for consolidation sake,” said Weinstein, president of the Town of Hempstead Civic Council. “Not every one [special district] needs to be consolidated, but when you analyze the numbers and come up with a positive result, it makes sense.”

Maragos said his office may revisit the special district issue next year, but for now, he said he’s focused on streamlining county government and working toward a balanced budget.

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“The county is run so inefficient now, you can’t convince me we can do any better,” he said of the county taking over special districts. “That’s why we have a $250 million deficit.”
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